Should Your Senior Care Organization Engage an Outside PR Firm?

A PR agency can help you execute initiatives and cope with crisis communications, but you’ll have to do some work, too.

Many businesses rely on outside PR firms and agencies to help relay their message to the wider world, and increasing numbers of senior living facilities are among them.

Engaging the services of a PR agency may assist your business in a variety of ways — marketing and finding placements in mainstream media can improve your community’s’ prestige and, in the event of a crisis, a PR team can help control and shape the narrative and limit the devastating impact of bad news.

According to one PR professional with about 15 years’ experience in the role (who requested anonymity because of the contract her agency has with the senior living facilities it represents), the decision to engage a PR firm typically comes from a senior executive member of staff.

Often, this person is in the marketing department, but depending on the size and structure of the organization, it may be another C-level executive.

Outline Goals, Expectations, and Strategy

When initially engaging with a PR firm, it’s important to outline goals and expectations for the interaction. “With any client, whether it’s a senior living facility, a health care client or a general consumer client, you want to start off with the messaging. What are you trying to say and what’s your messaging platform?” our source asks.

For example, are you trying to let potential new residents know about a new wing opening in your facility? Are you trying to give the general public a better understanding of what senior living entails? Are you interested in highlighting new research findings or charitable work your company is involved with?

Each of these goals may require a different approach, so being clear upfront can help your PR agency be more efficient in delivering your message to the public.

The second step is “coming up with a campaign or a plan” to meet those objectives. Drafting a strategy will help you figure out which steps you need to take to best communicate what you’re trying to share. These discussions will cover which media outlets you should be targeting and how you plan to reach them.

Are you going to use social media to reach your audience? If so, what types of posts need to be drafted? Are you targeting print media? If so, does the PR agency have relationships with journalists at these publications who may be receptive to the idea you’re pitching? Working through questions like these will help create a strategy road map to follow.

Identify a Point Person

Next, you need to identify who will work with the PR agency to execute the plan. While the PR agency will do the active outreach to journalists and media outlets and drafting press releases and social media posts, there has to be someone inside your organization who can assist them in this work and answer questions, make decisions, and otherwise coordinate the campaign.

“We often do weekly phone calls with this internal person,” our PR source explains, “to get a download on what’s happening internally so we can integrate that into the strategy.” Things change quickly in business and PR, so having someone who’s available at least weekly, and ideally more often, to approve press releases or answer questions is critical to getting your message picked up in a timely way.

Similarly, when the PR agency does secure an interview with a media outlet, you need to have a spokesperson or other high-level individual ready and able to conduct interviews on short notice. Journalists are under intense pressure to meet their deadlines, and if your company fumbles providing the right expert quickly, that opportunity may never come around again.

Crisis Communications Are Particularly Critical

Particularly when navigating crisis communications, having someone who’s knowledgeable about the situation and available to field questions from the media and the general public is an important part of presenting a cohesive and responsive front.

Crisis communications is a very particular subset of PR, and our source says that most PR agencies can handle these situations to one degree or another, but it’s important to ask in advance if that’s something you’re interested in having a PR firm help you with. There is some nuance to being able to quickly put out a statement and coordinate with your legal team or corporate counsel so as not to create any additional legal headaches for your company.

What Does It Cost?

Depending on what you want a PR agency to help you with and how big your company is, the fees to retain a PR agency’s help will vary greatly. Our source says that for a small senior living facility with one location that’s looking for a simple, one-off campaign, you might be looking at fees in the $3,500 to $5,000 range.

For a longer-term campaign or for more intensive help, naturally the fees will be greater and can run in to the tens or even hundreds of thousands pretty quickly for a bigger company with multiple locations needing multiple campaigns and ongoing support.

The PR person we spoke with says that if you’re trying to gain high-value media coverage for your company, you may need to budget for a longer-term engagement, and many PR firms prefer to contract for six months to a year, rather than executing a single campaign. “That longer engagement lets you develop the bigger stories that are more impactful for the organization.”

For example, if you’re hoping to be included in a feature in the New York Times, it can take upwards of four months or more for such opportunities to materialize.

When PR Works Best

In the best of situations, an outside PR agency can become like an extension of your company, our PR professional says. And the longer that relationship can run, the better the agency will get to know your business and can find additional opportunities or make suggestions of new campaigns you might not have even thought to pursue.

Plus, “if anything does go wrong, your agency is there and ready to go. It’s easier to jump into crisis mode if you already know the organization.”

Although many senior living facilities may have never worked with an outside PR agency, our source says the trend is moving towards more senior living facilities adding a PR agency into the mix.

“In the past, there wasn’t a heavy need for outside PR firms in the senior living space but this is changing. The amenities and the programming at many senior living facilities are getting more sophisticated, and because of demographic shifts, the competition is getting tougher. Those are two reasons why you’re likely to see more and more senior living facilities hiring outside PR agencies.”

Topics: Administration , Business Marketing Including Social Media and CRM , Executive Leadership